Look carefully at the picture accompanying the recent interview my Giving Review co-editors did with Howard Fuller, now a distinguished professor of education at Marquette University. There’s Dan Schmidt, former vice president at The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, conversing with Dr. Fuller, who received Bradley funding for many of his projects over the years.

Howard Fuller and Dan Schmidt in Fuller’s office

Given Bradley’s reputation as one of the nation’s leading conservative foundations, one might expect to see Fuller’s office wall adorned with portraits of Adam Smith, or Friedrich von Hayek, or Milton Friedman.

Instead, there’s a picture of … Malcolm X. More than 50 years ago, Fuller heard Malcolm deliver his famous “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech and, as he says in the interview, “it was that speech that actually changed my whole life in terms of how I saw myself as a Black man and as a Black human being.”

Given the impermeable ideological lines that are carved through the middle of today’s politics, Schmidt and Fuller make a very unlikely pair. And yet, as the conversation suggests, from their days in Milwaukee high-school basketball on, they knew and admired many of the same people, and—in a city reputed to be the “most segregated” in America—inhabited a common world.  They continue to do so.

This relationship became part of an alliance that made possible the development of the first parental-choice system in the nation—one that has so far survived innumerable and ongoing attempts to curtail, disrupt, and repeal it.

And this relationship reveals what is so sadly missing from the transaction-based philanthropy of today.

Power and control

As is clear from the interview and from his compelling autobiography No Struggle No Progress: A Warrior’s Life from Black Power to Education Reform, Fuller’s central concern has always been “how do the poorest people gain more control over their lives in this country?” That animated his work with various “War on Poverty” programs in the ’60s, when “maximum feasible participation” meant for him that “we should organize poor people so that they have power to change conditions.” As he put it, “poor people should get money from this stuff;” it shouldn’t just support “people with degrees” to “talk to [the poor] about what they want to have happen.”

As he moved more deeply into education reform in later years, this principle translated into advocacy for parental choice in education. Entirely aside from the possibility of improved test scores, “parent choice has a value that is disconnected from the quality of the school they choose,” he notes in the interview. “The value ought to be defined by whether we have created the possibility for people to have choice. I would argue that that has a value in and of itself.” Parental choice, in other words, was a critical way to “enable the poorest people [to] gain more control over their lives.”

As the struggle for parental choice in Milwaukee heated up in the early ’90s, the Bradley Foundation, where I also worked, was engaged in its own efforts to help transfer decision-making power from “people with degrees” to everyday citizens. In a speech to a National Review Institute conference in 1993, Bradley’s then-president Mike Joyce pleaded for conservatism to rely less on heady policy analysis and more on attaching itself to a compelling human story,

one with particular resonance in the American soul: the average citizen, wishing only to run his own affairs according to his own lights, [who] is ignored, manipulated, and disempowered by the entrenched special interests; when at last he’s fed up with the abuse, he rises in righteous rebellion and seizes control over his own affairs again, in a grand renewal of the American ideal of citizenship.

As Joyce noted, liberalism had traditionally been the beneficiary of the revolt against the elites. But Fuller and Joyce agreed that, in the modern world, liberalism—with its vast, centralized, sclerotic, bureaucratic programs—had instead become the entrenched, unresponsive power, incapable of delivering the quality education that citizens desperately needed.

For both of them, parental choice was a means to re-empower the poor to take control of their own lives again. “We [shared] a certain belief in the importance of people being able to define for themselves the direction they wanted to go in their lives,” in Fuller’s words.

Organizing vs. mobilizing

This agreement upon a major, overriding strategic principle lay at the root of a remarkable relationship between the Bradley Foundation and Fuller, one that baffled friends and foes of both. Bradley provided financial support for someone whose life had been profoundly shaped by Malcolm X; Fuller accepted money from a foundation that, as he notes in the interview, funded The Bell Curve.

Both sides endured all sorts of calumny for this peculiarly trans-ideological relationship. But for Fuller and Bradley staff alike, “there was a personal relationship that was built out of respect, that did not require agreement on every single thing.”

So much of Bradley’s philanthropic method—envied by liberal critics for its effectiveness—was rooted in and informed by the work on parental choice.  (That work had been pursued by Fuller and his allies long before Bradley was even established, as we’ve noted before.)

Fuller confirms, for instance, the common view that conservative foundations were far more likely to provide general-operating support, at generous levels, for extended periods of time, enabling grantees to pursue their work with a minimum of administrative interference, burdensome reporting requirements, or demands for ludicrously precise metrics.

“Look, the Bradley Foundation has never told me to do anything. I’ve gone to them and said, here’s what I’m doing. They have either supported or not supported it,” Fuller notes.

One of the more-interesting things, I say to people, is that the Bradley Foundation was much more hands-off than Gates and some of these so-called liberal foundations. … It wasn’t like people calling you, asking if you’re doing this or that. I don’t remember Michael Joyce or any of you saying, you’ve got to do this.

For most foundations, Fuller suggests, the grantmaking relationship is fleeting and transactional, broken into a one-year segment, measured to within an inch of its life, documented in elaborate reports that are never read, and then forgotten.  That approach may be fine for generating mobilization, he notes, but it’s radically different from organizing.

Organizing, Ella Baker taught Fuller, “is really deep relationships over time.” But with today’s short-term, results-oriented grantmaking, “you can’t do deep relationship-building. You end up, in some ways, using people almost as props, as opposed to really working with people in the kind of deep ways that we did in Milwaukee.”

Just as Fuller built those deep relationships among grassroots community leaders on behalf of parent choice, so he built them with the Bradley Foundation. As with other nonprofit leaders, he enjoyed the foundation’s long-term, general-operating support because, even from his days as a high-school basketball star, we knew him.

We knew him to be a person of absolute integrity, utterly committed—with every fiber of his being and throughout his entire career—to his mission: enabling our poorest citizens to make critical decisions about their own lives for themselves, without the patronizing oversight of the professional elites.

Any effort on our part somehow to “manage” Fuller would only have compromised the hard-won authority he enjoyed among Milwaukee’s low-income citizens. Any attempt to monitor or manipulate his activities would have been counterproductive, because he alone understood what was needed in any given instance to advance the central principle we both shared. More to the point, a meddlesome, directive, intrusive philanthropic approach would have betrayed that belief in citizens’ capacity to run their own affairs.

Partnership amidst polarization

There is a certain elegiac quality to Fuller’s musings. He’s engaged in “organizing people to fight back against the assault on charters,” but finding that young people are more interested in “titles and job descriptions”—they’re more technocrats than organizers.  Or, as Schmidt put it, “the problem is … you forget that there were martyrs, and you forget the tradition, your predecessors.”

Over time, many of the old alliances have frayed, and the foundations open to Fuller’s mission have nonetheless abandoned the generous scope Bradley once afforded him. “I hear a lot more business terminology than I heard before,” he notes, echoing Phil Buchanan’s spot-on critique in his new book Giving Done Right.

Ironically, that only reinforces the charge brought by the left that parental choice is all about turning public education over to the corporations. Fuller’s opponents are thus “able to characterize this as all about a business thing, as opposed to anything that’s tied to social justice.”

The outcomes-based data so central to grantmakers today are far less important to making the public case for parental choice, he notes. “You don’t ever win people over with data. You get the people’s hearts and souls and minds. … I like to lead with, here’s the human purpose for which we’re doing this and this is some of or results.”

Given this sobering assessment, and given today’s dramatic polarization around race and ideology, it might be thought that we have little to learn from the Fuller/Bradley partnership. But the problem the partnership sought to address—the failure of a bumbling and officious professional class to deliver on promises to our lowest-income citizens—has only become more acute over the past three decades. Indeed, the language Fuller and Joyce used to describe the civic crisis of the ’90s is astonishingly similar to that used by so many on the right and left today.

The solution pursued by the Fuller/Bradley partnership is no less relevant, as well. Many analysts, from James and Deb Fallows and Chris Arnade on the left to Tim Carney and Yuval Levin on the right, despair of resolving directly our national political gridlock. But they share the conviction that far from Washington, D.C., in cities and towns around the country, a great deal of productive civic work is nonetheless underway.

This calls for an effort to shift governing authority back to localities, where citizens can more immediately and directly address the problems they believe are most urgent. That, too, was the solution that the Bradley Foundation and Fuller were pursuing together, in their mutual determination to shift educational decisions away from stagnant bureaucracies and back to local communities of committed parents.

Still a potentially motivating insight

Returning to that photo at the top of the Fuller interview: in spite of the fact that Dan Schmidt and Howard Fuller had grown up on opposite sides of the color line in a city described by one book as “The Selma of the North,” their conversation nonetheless bespeaks a shared history, a web of mutual recollections of locally famous basketball players, coaches, and championship games. Although not part of the interview, they went on to work together at Marquette University as well, and came to know and respect each other.

As Fuller suggests, connections like these feed directly into the “deep personal relationships” that are essential to organizing, as opposed to merely mobilizing. And mutual, personal understanding and trust can locate shared interests in the midst of otherwise-substantial differences in political opinion. Just as that insight was at the heart of Bradley’s grantmaking during the battle for parental choice, so can it motivate foundations today.

Share with cohorts